Goodbye, fellow navigator: Ranjit Hoskote pays tribute to Vivan Sundaram (28 May 1943 – 29 March 2023)
Most wonderful of artists, he was also an ever-vigilant citizen. He never abandoned hope, even in the face of bleak scenarios
He was named ‘Vivasvān’ at birth—either by his Sanskrit scholar father K V Kalyan Sundaram, also our first Election Commissioner, or by his Sanskrit scholar grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, also a yogi and pioneering photographer. Vivasvān is a name of the Vedic sun god, embodiment of the light, not only of reason, but also of insight and wisdom.
Hardly anybody remembers his given name today. As he grew up, its grandeur disappeared into the brisk abbreviated form by which the artist was always known, Vivan. Yet it remained present in the boundless energy that animated his artistic imagination, always coursing from one medium, set of materials and art-historical paradigm to another. In his curiosity about the world, about art and its complex interrelationships with civic and cultural practices at large. In the dedication he brought to approaching, as an archaeologist of culture, the biographies of his grandfather and his extraordinary aunt, one of the pioneers of Indian modernism, Amrita Sher-Gil—and, by extension, the historical moments they each inhabited, with their specific interplay between Indian and European modernities, Indian and European forms of the classical, their distinctive ways of fashioning their individual selves even while retaining the right to intervene in the Eastern and Western societies they inhabited, defying the protocols laid down in the name of empire, colonialism, and race.
My career as a writer on art began with an essay I wrote on Vivan Sundaram’s charcoal and collage series, ‘Long Night’, in December 1988 for The Times of India. Over the years, we would meet at exhibitions, conferences, lectures, at his home, in social contexts, our conversation flowing across the visual arts, cultural history, literature, and psychology. We participated in the same protests and were signatories to the same petitions, such as those in defence of M.F. Husain against his detractors; were involved in organising demonstrations across the country, such as the ‘Save Chandramohan’ campaign. When I confronted difficulties from some sectors of officialdom while I was curating India’s first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, Vivan clapped me on the back and said, “Don’t hesitate to let us know if you need any help or support in dealing with these problems, we are old campaigners.”
I reviewed or wrote essayistic responses to a number of his exhibitions, and, over the decades, strong points of affinity emerged between his evolution as a visual artist and mine as a poet. I responded viscerally to that compelling phase in his oeuvre when his attention fastened itself on the detritus of the industrial, on broken propeller and cast-off engine, the stain of machine oil and the sting of salt in the air. Always, I had loved Vivan’s fascination for journeys, for the figures of the merchant and the Orientalist, the mid-water denizen of banana boat and the tramp ship. I dedicated two poems to him, one of which appeared in my 2001 volume, The Sleepwalker’s Archive, and the other in my most recent book, Icelight (2023).
I always admired Vivan’s indomitable courage, his ability to engage with plural versions of the historical record, his refusal to abdicate the ground of the political in favour of more comfortable zones of retreat. Most wonderful of artists, he was also an ever-vigilant citizen. He never abandoned hope, even in the face of bleak scenarios and unpromising medical diagnoses.
In a letter Vivan wrote me on 12 September last year, he flagged the specific aspects of his work that he wished me to address in a forthcoming book on his oeuvre: “Done in different places and over different decades, these works are about water journeys and ground shelter: exile and refuge; boat and shed. It signals insecure journeys and provisional forms of shelter: precarious life. You may now guess why I thought of you for this body of work. Might you be interested? Will you find time?” I was deeply moved to realise that he had followed my journey, just as I had followed his. Yes, Vivan, I will complete this essay for you; but it breaks my heart to know that you won’t be here to read it. Goodbye, fellow navigator, fellow tracker of reefs and currents and vexed routes across riverscapes and oceanways!